by Jesse Davis, Sr Warden
Wasn’t Temperance that lady from The Crucible? You know, “I saw Goody Temperance cavorting with a black cat!” Isn’t it the same thing as abstention and Prohibition?
Temperance is a six dollar word for moderation or restraint.
For millennia, a wide variety of cultures have regarded it as a virtue. Great thinkers from the Buddha to Benjamin Franklin (not to mention Solomon, Plato, and St. Thomas Aquinas) extolled Temperance as essential to a good and moral life. Just like we learned as kids with belly aches the day after Halloween—too much of a good thing is a bad thing. And too much of a bad thing is, well, REALLY bad.
But this view is deceptively simplistic. For Christians, Temperance goes beyond Philosophy 101 and desk calendar wisdom. In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul lists Temperance among the “fruits of the Spirit.” And in 1 Corinthians 9:27 he says, “I pummel my body and subdue it.” Paul is reminding us that in a world full of temptation, the Holy Spirit gives us the strength to live according to God’s will. While the Buddha and the Greeks taught that human will can resist sin on its own, we know that Christ is our only salvation — from sins we have already committed and sins we struggle not to commit. In Christianity, the integral role of forgiveness is what elevates Temperance from a good idea to one of the Cardinal Virtues. Intentionally living with Temperance, that is, the discipline or habit of moderation and restraint, fosters a contrite heart necessary for repentance, and a contrite heart then naturally seeks to live with Temperance.
Unfortunately, today we live in a culture that scoffs at Temperance and lauds her enemies — gluttony, lust, and excess. Hollywood produces reel after reel of teen party movies in which the goals are to drink as much alcohol and have as much sex as possible, without consequences. Because, hey, Party! Binge drinking is an ever-present aspect of college life. All-you-can-eat buffets are a staple of the restaurant scene. Taco Bell has invented a “Fourth Meal” to satisfy late-night cravings (I think you can add a cheesy-gordita-crunchwrap-supreme to any combo meal for like a nickel). In one popular cable show, the host travels the world eating the biggest and most outlandish foods he can find. And pornography is freely available and readily accessible by anyone (of any age) with a smartphone.
Confronted with this panoply of degradations, living with Temperance is hard. Certainly our culture does nothing meaningful to hold us accountable. So like any other vital struggle, our only recourse is in Christ and each other. Each Sunday we recite the BCP confession, asking for both forgiveness and the means to walk in God’s ways. Essentially, we ask for growth in the fruits of the Holy Spirit. The habitual life of the Spirit is a life of intentional discipline, which makes room for the Spirit to grow in us virtue, and slowly, the virtues begin to lead us away from habitual sins. Here’s a pro tip, from an old school sinner. We can make the same confession with whatever words come to our lips (it doesn’t necessarily have to come from the BCP. Although the language is readily available). We can beseech the same strengthening power at whatever hour we need it. It works. Seriously. Try it sometime soon — before you pour another glass of wine, or order Arby’s Meat Mountain sandwich. You won’t just feel better, you’ll draw closer to God and his plan for you.
The more you resist over-indulgence, the easier it is to live in the habit of Temperance.
That’s the wonderful thing about Temperance. Even though it seems like we’re giving something up, in truth we come out ahead. As we decrease, He increases. As our desires and temptations wane, His perfect will takes their place. The longer we walk His path, the less we desire to leave it. Then, the life of tension and struggle becomes the life of peace. God’s peace. And that is a treasure beyond price.